a village Christmas

December 25, 2013

A village Christmas. I could never have imagined it would be the way it turned out to be. Mind you, I knew going into it that it was to be a blind acceptance of an unknown to-come; I could not have predicted any particular sort of way 5 days in a remote village could be. And, frankly, it was with a good deal of trepidation that I stepped out of my comfort zones to do this. For one, I was out of my technology comfort zone: for one who is normally internet-reliant for all manner of connectedness, no online access for this amount of time would be no small venture.
For two, this would be out of my working comfort zone: it was going into someone else’s work life, basically as a bystander, and letting go of the crutch that my working identity generally functions as. Finally, this would be a departure from “comfort zone” in the expected “comfort” level of the word: logistics such as no indoor plumbing, for one (the closest outhouse being down the hill, past some homes, and back up the hill again) meant any Western idea of comfort was, well, anywhere but here! 
But the surprising thing that happened, once I’d had a day or so to get my bearings, was the realization that somewhere deep inside the city-dwelling self I have become, there is a part of me that was shaped by my early village-dwelling existence. So I found myself settling happily into the pace of days spent observing toilet installations, playing impromptu games with laughing little ones, and then, in the oddest manner imaginable, celebrating Christmas. Christmas Eve began with a discussion over the breakfast table as to how the workday would begin. One project leader had left for a supply run that day, leaving us with a shortage of both supplies and leadership. The suggestion was made to do an alternate task at hand, hiking to the water source for an inspection. The village leader suspected it would take us 5 hours. Since it actually took 4, I later had my own suspicions that he was tacking on a significant chunk of time to allow for an apparently slow female hiker :-). It was, in fact, an arduous climb. For portions if the trek I felt like I was having to dredge up rock climbing skills (and, alternatively, bottom-sliding skills for the way down). It wasn’t particularly pleasant either, with the sun growing quite warm and the guide warning us against baring skin when in the tall grass. My fear of itchy skin overpowered present discomfort so I begrudgingly kept my winter jacket zipped up to my chin. 
Eventually we made it to the top and inspections were made of the small streams that sufficed as water sources for the village. At one of them, after Peter had spoken with our guide for a bit without figuring out what the exact problem might be, he asked the guide if he could see the other end of the pipe that was directing water from the collection tank down the hill. He held the end up to his mouth then gave it a forceful blow. When a chunk of mud came out the other end, Peter scooped it out of the holding tank and smiled. “I’m really just a glorified plumber,” he quipped.
On the way back down, once I had determined for myself that I would, in fact, survive this hike, it occurred to me that I should somehow commemorate this as the day it was. I began to quietly hum “away in a manger.” Peter heard me and joined in, so I began to sing at a more normal volume. For the rest of the hike we worked through all the Christmas carols we could think of. One of my falls came in the middle of one of the songs I tend to get particularly engrossed in. I got up and recovered my bearings, still singing as I did so. “Maybe we should stop singing …” Peter suggested. I insisted that singing had no effect on my hiking abilities and we carried on. 
By the time we returned to the village, I was covered with a layer of botanically interesting, but personally undesirable, burrs and prickles of all manner of species. I was dreading the prospect of removal until I realized that, village life being what it is, the process would be relatively painless (no pun intended). As the women laughed at me, and commented on how “li hai” (strong) I was to have finished the hike, the prickle removal was made short work of, with many hands.
That afternoon held more septic tank installation work for much of the village. So though our team had spoken a bit of attempting some sort of nativity play, we were short on both time and energy by the time evening came. At dinner, however, a mention of caroling was made. I almost jumped off my stool as I envisioned the idea. “Why not?” I asked. “Is it appropriate? Can we? … Let’s do it!” So we spent Christmas Eve caroling-going from one village doorstep to the next, and ending each with a “sheng dan jie quai le!” (“Merry Christmas!). Judging from the shy smiles on little faces and the amused grins on big ones, I’m quote certain that some significant Christmas goodwill was spread to all … Or at least to most :-) 
Once we had finished, and bedtime neared, I began to think towards the travel coming the next day. A tear rolled down my face when I spoke out loud the realization that I was sad. Sad to be leaving, so soon, this place that so rapidly stole my heart.
The next morning we left on motorcycles. My backpack strapped to my back and my hands gripping the driver, I think I grinned the whole way down; I was smiling at both my love of motorcycle transport and at the amusing way this ride was commemorating Christmas morning. A motorcycle ride led to a bus ride shared with a tank of live fish and, as I write this, we travel on. On to the next stopping point and then, the next day, on to the next adventure.
“Oh God, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” (Ps 8:4)
…that You are so good as to fill the heart of a woman who wants You, and who wants to want You more?

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